Maiden Lane, London WC2
A robust design of the 1870s in Early English Gothic style, Frederick Hyde Pownall’s last, which cleverly overcomes site constraints. The church was built ‘as an act of reparation for the indignities offered to the Blessed Sacrament in this country in the sixteenth century and since’. The dark and atmospheric interior contains some important furnishings, notably by Thomas Earp, but has been somewhat marred by the inappropriate application of textured paint to many of the surfaces. With its pyramidal spire and attached contemporary presbytery, the church makes a positive contribution to the Covent Garden Conservation Area. The church is the base of the Catholic Stage Guild.
In 1872 a lease on a small L-shaped parcel of land was acquired from the Bedford Estate by Fr Cornelius Keens for the purposes of building a church. The mission territory was the area around Covent Garden, the Strand, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, which was said to contain about 2000 Catholics, many of them working in the local markets. Designs were drawn up by the Catholic convert architect Frederick Hyde Pownall, whom Fr Keens had employed at Sacred Heart, Holloway (qv). The contractors were Messrs Sharpington & Cole of Westminster Bridge Road. The foundation stone for a church estimated to cost £8000 was laid on 5 August 1873. The church was built in the Early English Gothic style, and its internal floor level was sunk three feet below that of the pavement, in order, it is said, to assuage local concern about the scale of the building. The church of Corpus Christi was opened on 20 October 1874, when Archbishop Manning preached. The Tablet report stated that the dedication was intended ‘as an act of reparation for the indignities offered to the Blessed Sacrament in this country in the sixteenth century and since’. It is believed to have been the first church to be built in England since the Reformation with this dedication. The Tablet report also referred to the difficulties faced by the architect on account of the poor foundations and confined nature of the site.
The church was consecrated in October 1956, the debt having finally been paid off.
The church has had a long association with actors, and remains the base of the Catholic Stage Guild.
The church is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation.
The exterior is adequately described in the list entry, below, but there is very little on the internal furnishings – reference is made only to the Thomas Earp altar and reredos and to the allegedly medieval font (figure 2). The latter is said to have been found on the site (Catholic Weekly, 17 January 1902, 2). It is Early English in style, with an octagonal pedestal and bowl. Each side of the bowl is carved in low relief with religious motifs set in quatrefoils surround in low relief. It is located at the main entrance and is used as a holy water stoup. The painted Caen stone font used for baptisms (figure 3) was designed by Pownall, and is located in the baptistery at the southwest corner of the church, to the right of the main entrance.
As stated in the list entry, the internal walls were originally faced in bare red brick with some dark brick banding brick and stone detailing in the arches and windows (‘a nice change from monotonous plaster walls’ (Rottman, 138)). Unfortunately these have been covered at a later date with textured paint. The stonework of the pulpit has also been painted. [Compare with Pownall’s Sacred Heart of Jesus, Holloway qv, where a similar original finish survives].
Other furnishings of note:
The capitals of the nave arcade were also carved by Earp (now covered with gold paint).
The Sacred Heart altar in the south chapel also appears to be in the style of Earp; stone and gaudily repainted, with a statue of the Sacred Heart by Mayer of Munich in the central niche.
Large original (shown on Pownall’s drawing, figure 1) Caen stone nave pulpit (now painted).
Stained glass windows in the plate tracery: those over the high altar with the four thirteenth-century saints associated with the Blessed Sacrament – St Clare of Assisi, Blessed Juliana of Mount Cornillon, St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, designed by Percy Fitzgerald in memory of his wife, 1876; in the Lady Chapel with the Coronation of the Virgin and other scenes (photo bottom left), date and artist not established but probably of the 1870s, and in the manner of Clayton & Bell; in the south aisle, a two-light window by Mayer (signed), blocked externally.
Near the sanctuary steps, a small bronze statue of the Roman boy martyr St Tarcisius, by Karin Jonzen (d.1998).
A statue of St Genesius, Roman martyr and patron saint of actors.
At the west end on the south side a wooden Gothic altar with a polychrome statue of St Patrick, 1910.
The Stations of the Cross are freestanding relief carvings, in memory of Fr J. M. Kearney (d.1934).
Architect: Frederick Hyde Pownall
Original Date: 1873
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: II